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Miki Johnson: Tell me how you’ve diversified from what you were doing before to a lot of workshops and teaching.
Jack Picone: I was based in London in the ’80s and ’90s, and worked mostly for European magazines and the supplements for the UK papers, The Independent, the Observer, The Guardian; or the usual suspects in Germany, Spiegel and Stern; and in France, Le Republic and Liberation. In the ’90s, I covered about eight wars over a decade, including Yugoslavia and the breakup of Russia and conflict on the African continent. Then I lived in Tanzania for a year, and came here to Bangkok after that.
Those magazine assignments were my backbone when I was in London, and it was a much simpler existence. All I did was go off on assignment for them, or I would have a guarantee. Now I just let those assignments come to me by osmosis. I still get work trickling in from Germany, France, UK, and a bit from Australia, where I’m from. People ask me why I still do occasional assignments. I tell them: “When you go on assignments, it takes you to places and puts you in situations that you would never be in. You meet people you would never meet otherwise, and that’s good for your creative spirit and soul.”
I realized in the early 2000s that I would have to start diversifying because it wasn’t financially viable to continue as just a photographer. That’s when I started teaching photography: at other people’s workshops, for the World Press, or I’d get invited to universities to do workshops and critiques. Then I realized I really enjoyed teaching; it was interesting and it still involved photography. I kind of got the teaching bug. It’s quite electric when you can impart some experience and knowledge to people who want it, and then actually see them improving. So I started diversifying into teaching, at first other people’s workshops and then my own. I still do both, along with other things like fine-art exhibitions. Teaching, like photography in general, is not a very stable marketplace. It’s so mercurial, you can’t bank on it 100% either.
MJ: Walk me through a workshop week. Do you have help putting it together?
JP: It’s pretty much just me most of the time, but then about a month before the workshop starts, I bring people in on a freelance basis. For instance, the last big workshop, in Katmandu, I had someone doing the administration stuff and then I flew in a photographer from Australia who’s a friend of mine, Stephen Dupont, to work with me full time. Then I flew in about five other photographers as guest lecturers. Normally I just pay their air fare or their accommodation or do some sort of contract deal.
For the workshop, the students turn up and there’s an introduction. The first night the instructors will show some work to inspire the students. Then normally I give them a word, like “hope,” with a brief, something vague — they’re not meant to be spoon fed. Then they have to interpret the word, find their subject, and start shooting it.
We usually get into a pattern where they’ll go out and shoot early in the mornings or late in the afternoon when the light is best and work the other part of the day in our computer lab. We critique and edit in the afternoons, and then go into the night sessions, where we start showing their work and critiquing it in front of the other participants. And then, of course, each night is peppered with the photographers I fly in, who do a formal presentation each night. There’s a lot of stimulation.
Finally we critique and edit all their work from the week and then put together an A/V presentation that we project during the final night show. On that final night, because the workshops migrate, we will invite locals to come and see the show, so it’s a real community thing. Whatever country we hold the workshops in, we also give a couple places to local photographers who can’t afford the fee.
The best thing about the workshops is the cross-fertilization. And not just between the tutors and the participants, but among the participants themselves. They learn a lot from each other and from their own work — what they’re striving for and what they’re failing at and what they’re achieving. Lots of people from the workshops become life friends and stay in touch, with me and with each other. Some of them have gone on to be very successful, like Jean Chung and Richard Humphries. Jean was on one of my first students, in Laos, and she’s doing amazing things now, has won all sorts of awards.
There was another young guy, in Katmandu last time, named Solendra. He was basically a news photographer covering all the political problems in Nepal and Katmandu. And my course is very documentary, not news or hardcore photojournalism — although we will have photojournalist tutors because it’s a fluid edge between the two. The workshop was an epiphany for him because he discovered this documentary way of taking pictures, and he hasn’t stopped practicing it since he left. He’s so appreciative that he got the chance to be exposed to that, as well as a whole lot of other photographers.
That cross-cultural fertilization is very important, too. The local photographers are great to have on the workshops because a lot of the other students are mostly Western or European. The locals can help them out with local knowledge and help them really experience the local culture.